In 1915 a group of women decided to try their hand at world peace. It had been nearly a year since the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, multiple countries were piling into what would eventually be known as The Great War, and back home the UK government’s promises that their boys would be “home by Christmas” had failed to materialize.
At the outbreak of WW1 the suffragettes and suffragists (respectively the militant and non-militant pressure groups for women’s suffrage in the UK) had agreed to cease campaigning and to throw their efforts into war work. They provided aide for thousands of Belgian refugees, they set up a bureau to trace missing soldiers and civilians, and they supported the thousands of women who had been made nearly destitute when their men enlisted.
Women in the UK were in trouble: low wages and the death of loved ones combined to force many one parent families into poverty. Female refugees were a constant reminder of the toll the war had taken on women and campaigners began to realize that something had to be done. Women had taken no part in the negotiations leading up to the war, they were unable to even vote for the men who would eventually declare war; but women were still suffering and dying.
With the dawning realization that the conflict was likely to drag on indefinitely, women in the UK began looking for solutions and they soon met like minded campaigners. Aletta Jacobs was the first women to qualify as a doctor in The Netherlands and she was keen to facilitate conversations around peace between all the nations involved in WW1. This included the so called belligerent nations (those directly involved in the conflict like Britain, Germany and France) alongside neutral countries (Holland, Switzerland and, at the time, America).
The 1915 International Peace Congress took place in The Hague and included over 1,200 delegates from 12 different countries: all dedicated to the cause of peace and conflict resolution. The number of attendees would have been even greater but many women were unable to travel across war-torn Europe and, in the end, only 3 British women were able to attend. This was partly the fault of British politicians who were initially reluctant to allow the delegate’s to travel to The Netherlands. Eventually only 24 out of 180 women were issued with passports and, when the ferries between the UK and Netherlands were cancelled, only those already in Holland attended the IPC.
Despite the difficulties faced by delegates the IPC was a fantastically ambitious, important, event. It flouted the received wisdom of the time: that war was inevitable between the nations concerned and it drew attention to the exclusion of women from conflict negotiations. Many women around Europe had been conditioned to think that war was a man’s business, fought in far-flung places. But WW1 would involve unprecedented numbers of civilians and many women would find themselves directly in the line of fire.
That the IPC organizers recognized this so early in the conflict is impressive, that they were able to coordinate such a proactive, international response is jaw-dropping. In April 2015 filmmaker Charlotte Bill recreated the journey made by British activists 100 years ago. Watching her film and reading accounts from the original delegates it’s clear that there are a number of lessons contemporary feminists can learn from their 1915 sisters:
1. Be ambitious. When the IPC was being planned many suffragettes (and their detractors) felt like Peace was too big and vague a concept for a group of women to achieve. To some extent they were right but while IPC delegates may not have stopped the war they did make a powerful statement about the way women were (and still are) excluded from negotiations.
2. Go against the grain. In February 1915 the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) agreed that members should not: “express opinions about the present war and the part taken by Great Britain”. So when hundreds of their members attempted to sail over to Holland to attend a Peace Conference it caused a bit of a rift. Half the NUWSS Executive Committee resigned and a split opened between the warmongering majority and the pacifist minority. This split was seen as a betrayal of the suffrage cause but feminists who find themselves in the minority today can take heart from the fact that…
3. Longevity is possible. The IPC organizers may have been focused on bringing an end to WW1 but, almost as an afterthought, they also created a 100 year legacy. The IPC marked the foundation of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), an organization which still exists today. Members of the WILPF are responding to conflicts that would have been unimaginable in 1915 and the organization acts as a reminder to contemporary feminists that the projects we begin today can still be powerful and relevant in a hundred years’ time.
4. Reach across borders. British politicians had originally decided that British women would not be allowed to attend the IPC but when they heard that German women would be there they changed their minds. Not only did having an international set of delegates help British women attend, it also flew in the face of the received wisdom that conflict between those nations was inevitable. This approach foreshadowed the way anti-FGM (female genital mutilation) campaigners from Nigeria, Sudan, Kenya, Liberia and the UK have combined their efforts to bring international attention to an issue that had previously been dismissed as “unsolvable”.
5. Women must always be involved in conflict resolution. One of the ground-breaking things about the IPC was that is acknowledged the role of women in war. Today there are still many people who refuse to accept that women’s voices are important when discussing conflict and activists have spent the last 5 years struggling to make sure that women are involved in the Syrian peace negotiations.
6. Question feminist leaders. The 24 women who were issued with passports to attend the IPC were the women who the British government deemed “suitable”. This generally meant that they were the wealthiest, most educated and, occasionally, the more conservative suffragettes. We can see the same selection process in the present day with the feminists who are given platforms by the government and media tending to be the more socially acceptable choice. Powerful white, able, cis men have always sort to control which feminists are given a platform and it’s still important for us to question why certain voices are prioritized over others.
7. History must be rewritten to include us. The women who attended the 1915 IPC should have made it into every history book ever written about WW1. Instead they’ve ended up as footnotes, the subject of niche academic publications, and as a half-formed stub on Wikipedia. The popular perception of women’s role in WW1 is of silly girls handing out white feathers to shame men into going to war, or as good little mothers and wives, waiting at home for their men to return. This limited representation fails to take into account the fact that many women campaigned to be allowed to fight. Many women risked and lost their lives as nurses, ambulance drivers, cooks and factory workers in support of the war. Finally it glosses over the fact that 1200 women got together in 1915 and, in trying to stop the war, made history.